I recently acquired one of Julia Child’s cookbooks on baking (breads, pastries and cakes) and after salivating over almost every recipe in the book, I decided upon one particular bread as a starting point: Focaccia (pronounced ‘foka-chi-ya’). Focaccia is an Italian flat bread topped with herbs and olive oil and is often eaten with appetizers or as sandwich bread. More than likely you’ve had it at an Italian restaurant. It’s fabulous!
My mom taught me how to make a few different unleavened breads (which I will cover on another date), however, this was my first real attempt at making leavened bread. I will refer you to the cookbook for the exact recipe.
The basic ingredients are flour, olive oil, active dry yeast, salt and water. The yeast is first proofed in warm water and allowed to sit for a few minutes until it has a creamy texture. The rest of the warm water is combined with a little olive oil and whisked together. Then the proofed yeast mixture is added to the oil/water mixture. When it’s fully incorporated, the flour is added bit by bit – this takes some time. I chose to make the dough without a mixer and it seems to have worked just fine. At some point, you have to stop trying to stir it with a spatula or spoon and get your hands in it. It’s a good hand/arm workout! I also discovered that having a whisk and having a number of mixing bowls are key. I also discovered that I need to get metal measuring cups as they are supposedly superior to plastic measuring cups in terms of consistency of flour measured….but then I’m all about improvising, so maybe not. It helps to listen to music that has some rhythm while you’re working the dough (e.g. Led Zeppelin’s Over the Hills and Far Away).
Okay so after about 10-15 minutes of working the dough, you roll it into a ball and throw it out the window…..haha…just checking that you’re reading this properly. Don’t do that. Instead, place the dough ball into an oiled bowl, cover it tightly with plastic wrap and leave it to rise. This is the first rise. The dough will balloon up to double it’s size. It’s sort of cool but takes about 1.5 – 2 hours. Then contrary to what one might think, you fold the dough down on itself and deflate it. Then let it rise again, covered with plastic wrap. This is the second rise. This time the rise takes about 1 hour.
While it’s rising you can prepare a work surface for the dough. Take the ballooned up dough, place it on a lightly floured surface and lightly powder the top of the dough. The recipe recommended cutting the dough into three pieces and then storing the pieces in 1 gallon ziploc bags in the refridgerator for 24-36 hours. However, in my vertigo-induced state, I somehow missed the detail about the 1 gallon bags. I only had 1 quart bags so I improvised. I cut the dough up into 9 pieces that fit nicely into 9, 1-quart bags. Lightly oil the inside of the 1 quart bags so the dough didn’t stick. Then placed each of the dough balls into each bag, sealed the bag shut and placed all bags in the refridgerator.
After 24 hours, I pulled the bags out. The dough had risen again slightly. I then followed a series of steps of pulling out each piece of dough and placing each under some plastic wrap while the temperature of the dough adjusted to room temperature. The dough sat out for about 1.5 hours. In the interrim, the baking stone was placed in the oven. I also heated some olive oil just slightly, threw in some dried oregano and basil and let the mixture sit to create the topping. I also bought some fresh thyme and pulled off the leaves as a topping as well. Place parchment paper on a baking sheet and throw a good handful of cornmeal on the parchment paper. Also, I put some cornmeal on a peel (which I didn’t have). The cornmeal prevents sticking. I didn’t think about the importance of not having a peel – a large square wooden spatula used to transfer pizza sized goods out of or into an oven, but I improvised when the time came. Once the dough reached the 1.5 hour mark, I used my hand to deflate each ball to an approximate square/rectangle. Then I covered the dough again with plastic wrap for 10 minutes. Finally, I opened the dough and shaped the edges into a rectangle or whatever shape you would like. Use a knife to cut a grid (3 x 3) pattern on the dough, then using a brush, apply some of the olive oil/herb mix and some salt. The recipe calls for coarse sea salt, but the one in the store looked like gigantic sea salt, so instead I bought Kosher Flaked Sea Salt – which is more coarse than regular salt. It worked well. Then I placed the prepared dough in the preheated 450 degree oven, on the baking stone. I sprayed water into the oven, over the dough three times within the first 10 minutes. The focaccia was removed from the oven when it turned golden, after a total of 15 minutes. I live at sea level and it took approximately 15 minutes to bake.
When you pull out the focaccia, apply a light coat of the olive oil and allow the focaccia to cool on a cooling rack. It’s now ready to eat! Pictures to come…